HCMC, a public hospital with a mission to serve the neediest patients, has helped a police weapon manufacturer brand its signature stun gun as a lifesaving device through a longstanding research and consulting relationship with some of its top doctors.
Axon, formerly known as Taser International, paid Hennepin Healthcare more than $1.1 million for consulting and other fees since 2005, according to hospital contract records released after a Star Tribune request.
Two researchers in leadership positions at HCMC have served as medical advisers for Axon, and the hospital’s research arm conducted 22 Axon-funded studies, hospital records show. For at least eight years, Axon paid the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. William Heegaard, $20,000 annually to serve on the company’s medical advisory board until he resigned this year. Heegaard has disclosed in studies that he also has owned Axon stock.
Dr. Jeffrey Ho, medical director for EMS at HCMC, doubles as Axon’s contract medical director for at least 32 hours per month. Every three months, the hospital bills Axon $34,344 to cover Ho’s shifts while he’s working for the company, records show. Ho bills the company directly for outside work, which amounted to $36,000 last year, according to Hennepin Healthcare spokesman Tom Hayes.
Ho’s name has appeared on more than 100 Axon-funded studies, articles or presentations, according to a summary of research posted on Axon’s website. In addition, law enforcement agencies or the company have hired Ho as a defense expert in court cases in which Tasers are implicated in injuries or deaths, court records show.
Ho “is one of the world’s leading experts on the study of TASER conducted electrical weapons and their effects on humans, and has played an instrumental role in studying this technology which has saved over 200,000 lives to date,” Axon spokeswoman Carley Partridge said.
Ho and Heegaard were not available for comment last week. In an interview Friday, Dr. James Miner, chief of emergency medicine for HCMC, said the hospital works with Axon to gain better medical expertise on Tasers that will help its doctors treat patients. Miner said he serves as a gatekeeper on all Taser-related research to safeguard against any bias.
“We’re not doing this research for law enforcement — we’re doing it for our patients to keep them safe,” Miner said.
Possible conflict of interest
The hospital’s ties to Axon trouble Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who said he was not previously aware of the relationship. He expressed concern over the potential conflict of interest for doctors working so closely with Axon, as well as Ho’s dual employers.
“The hospital board should have a sense of urgency about understanding the research agenda at HCMC and revisit the conflict of interest rules over there to make sure they’re still appropriate,” Opat said.
Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison, who is on Hennepin Healthcare’s board of directors, said the research by Heegaard, Ho and Miner aligns with the hospital’s mission of providing care for underserved communities.
“They have dedicated their work to that population, and what I understand is that the research they are doing is critical to making sure that these products are used in a lifesaving way, and that they improve the lives of the people who depend upon HCMC,” Callison said.
Still, she said, the hospital board will likely hold a discussion soon as it learns more about the relationship with Axon to ensure it’s still comfortable with the arrangement.
The disclosures about the financial ties between Axon and HCMC come months after Minneapolis city officials and federal regulators have criticized the hospital’s studies into EMS workers’ use of the sedative ketamine on patients in the field.
Heegaard, Miner and Ho were also involved in the hospital’s ketamine research. HCMC paused its sedation study and several others with a similar consent policy, called a waiver of consent, pending several investigations into its research protocols.
In June, Heegaard sent a letter to Axon formally resigning from the company’s medical board, he said. “Over the past 2 years, I have reduced my outside activities due to the demands of my current position,” Heegaard said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune in September.
Miner said there is no connection between the Taser and ketamine research, other than it involves a similar population of patients who are difficult to study yet frequently show up at the hospital for treatment.
Today, Axon touts its Taser devices as among the most popular weapons in North American law enforcement and says the devices have been deployed more than 3.8 million times. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company operates worldwide, with annual sales of about $344 million and a stock market value of about $2.4 billion.
On its website, Axon describes Taser as “a weapon that intends to actually save lives.” It became increasingly popular with police departments that saw it as a nonlethal alternative to guns. In the wake of police shootings in recent years, cities such as Chicago have equipped more police officers with Tasers in hopes of reducing the use of deadly force.
The spread of Tasers also has led to controversy. By 2006, the company was named as a defendant in 49 wrongful-death or injury lawsuits, according to the company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Fourteen states had passed regulations on the weapon, and New Jersey banned it outright.
In its filings that year, Axon identified a risk of losing acceptance by law enforcement and corrections agencies to perceptions that the weapons were not safe. The company identified a path forward.
“We have an assembled team of world class medical experts at our disposal and hired additional internal legal resources during 2005 to provide an efficient means of defending us against numerous product liability claims,” the company told its shareholders in an annual report.
Axon’s contract with Hennepin Faculty Associates, the now-defunct organization of HCMC’s doctors, was signed that year. In 2013, the hospital signed an additional contract with Axon to make its security personnel available for conferences and other appearances promoting its use of Tasers to protect patients, staff and guests.
In 2005, with Axon’s funding, Ho wrote an article for Police Magazine challenging the narrative that stun guns were dangerous, blaming sensationalized media reports.
“It has never been scientifically proven that a Taser has directly caused an in-custody death,” Ho wrote.
In 2007, Ho and Miner published an Axon-funded report on the impact of using Tasers on mentally ill populations in hospitals, according to Axon’s summary of research. That same year, Ho and Miner participated in a study concluding that 15-second bursts from a stun gun do not raise a resting person’s body temperature, which they published in a scientific journal.
In 2011, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco released a report analyzing how funding sources may influence Taser research. The report, which cited the HCMC doctors’ research, among others, concluded studies funded by Axon or written by company-affiliated researchers were nearly 18 times more likely to conclude that the weapons are safe.
Miner has authored dozens of publications funded by Axon but has never received money directly from the company, he said. “I have the final say on our research, so I’ve avoided direct entanglement with the company,” Miner said.
Miner said he believes their research has changed the design and deployment of Tasers for the better, but he said the hospital has no say in how Axon uses its research to market its product.